Vote early this year. Vote tomorrow, the first day of early voting, if you can. Don't put it off until Election Day. "Vote early, then go back and bring others to vote early," is the message of the NAACP's Million Voter March, and though it's aimed at minority communities, I'm listening too.
I'll be voting early, if only to spare the Obama organizers who called so many times four years ago to remind me that I hadn't voted yet—and I'd promised to vote for Obama.
I will, on Election Day, I told them.
This year, they can check me off early and go hunting for some new voters. There are plenty out there to be found.
The obvious reason to vote early is that if you wait, something may come up to prevent you from getting to the polls on Nov. 6. Beyond that, early voting may help to produce a bandwagon effect. Television and newspaper accounts of crowds surging to the early voting sites may cause others who were inclined to sit it out to get off their duffs and vote, too.
This country's rate of voter participation is pathologically low, so anything that pushes it higher is welcome. Even in 2008, when Obama mania boosted turnout to record levels, just 62 percent of eligible adults cast a vote. U.S. voting ranks 139th out of 172 nations tracked by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Above all, though, early voting is crucial if there's a chance your right to vote will be obstructed or challenged at your polling place.
For blacks, as state NAACP President the Rev. William Barber recounted in a powerful address Saturday in Raleigh, obstacles and challenges are a historical certainty, up to and including this year's True the Vote campaign by the political right.
From slavery to Jim Crow, Barber said, whites used the law to prevent blacks from voting. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law's been on the side of minority voters, but efforts persist to suppress minority voting using fear tactics, disinformation or—if all else fails—simple cheating.
Remember Florida in the 2000 elections, when Republican election officials "mistakenly" purged tens of thousands of citizens from the voting rolls in the run-up to Election Day—almost all of them black- or brown-skinned?
Remember Ohio in 2004, when Republican election officials failed to install enough voting machines in inner-city precincts, forcing predominantly black and Hispanic voters to wait hours in line on Election Day? Even though many needed to be at work or home and couldn't wait?
It's no exaggeration to say that our so-called democracy in America has always been a struggle between those who want more people to vote and others—the property class—who resist mass voting, especially by poor people.
Since the Voting Rights Act, the Republican Party has assumed the latter role, appealing to whites and the prosperous with a message about protecting their assets from "welfare seekers." Meanwhile, the once-segregationist Democrats are now the party of minorities and progressive whites, a coalition that is a majority of the population but not necessarily the voting population.
In August, for example, a Suffolk University poll for USA Today found President Barack Obama with a 2-to-1 lead over Mitt Romney among the 40 percent of adults unlikely to vote. Obama and Romney are neck-and-neck with likely voters. If the unlikely ones showed up, Obama would win in a landslide.
The Republicans know this, and in elections past they've mounted "ballot security" campaigns in minority communities complete with billboards and telephone calls warning about the penalties for voting fraud. For unlikely or marginal voters who don't follow politics or are unaware of voter laws—but do know how much trouble a sheriff can cause if you accidentally violate the law—such warnings can be the final deterrent to keep them home on Election Day.
This year, Republicans attempted to add photo ID requirements to their bag of tricks for thwarting would-be voters. The ostensible purpose was, again, to prevent voter fraud, though examples of people trying to vote by posing as someone else are almost nonexistent. The real purpose was revealed by a Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored such a bill: It was to defeat Obama, despite his 10-point lead in Pennsylvania, by disenfranchising tens or even hundreds of thousands of low-income and senior voters who don't own a car, don't have a driver's license and wouldn't manage to come up with a photo ID substitute.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, federal judges have stepped up to block these laws on grounds that they interfere with a constitutional right for no legitimate purpose.
In North Carolina, too, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a photo ID law, but Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed it.
So Republican poll-watchers and volunteers for True the Vote, a national group about which the NAACP warned on Saturday, won't be able to challenge voters because they don't look like their pictures. But that doesn't mean they won't figure out some other reason—disputed address, disputed signature—to question whether a voter should be allowed to vote.
A small battalion of challengers from True the Vote and an allied North Carolina group called the Voter Integrity Project will attempt to disqualify some voters and slow down the process for others, predicts Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and co-author of a report, "Abridging the Vote: True the Vote in North Carolina," which the NAACP is distributing.
As of Sept. 30, the report states, True the Vote listed 286 volunteers in 60 North Carolina counties, including 71 in Wake County alone. "We expect a major effort," says N.C. Central law professor Irving Joyner, who's leading a legal team organized by the NAACP to help anyone prevented from voting.
Enough such challenges in a single precinct, however, and the voting on Election Day could slow to a crawl. That's reason enough to vote early. Or, if you're going to be hassled, better to know it early.
And if you haven't yet registered on Election Day, you can't vote—but you can register and vote at the same time at an early voting site. Bring any form of identification—a utility bill, for example—that lists your address.
By the way, about those "welfare seekers": There will never be a bigger welfare scheme than slavery, the Rev. Barber says, with wealthy whites the beneficiaries. With their bailouts and tax breaks, he argues, the wealthy continue to enjoy a form of welfare that adds to their incomes and widens the gap between them and the middle-class and poor.
"But if we vote at full strength," Barber says, "we'll shock the nation" and put an end to welfare as they know it.